"And It Came to Pass, in the Days of Achashverosh…"

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Adapted from an article by Harav Yaakov Medan
Translated by Kaeren Fish
A unique feature of Megillat Esther is the absence of any mention of God's Name. This omission seems to be intentional, since there are verses in which the appearance of God's Name would seem not only appropriate, but even necessary.
The most obvious example is Mordekhai's declaration to Esther (4:14): "Relief and deliverance shall arise for the Jews from elsewhere…" There is an obvious and deliberate avoidance of explicitly naming the "elsewhere" that would be the source of deliverance.
The Midrash addresses the concealment of God's involvement in the megilla, offering the following insight:
Wherever “King Achashverosh” is mentioned in Megillat Esther, the text refers to Achashverosh; but wherever it says only “the king,” the text alludes to the King of Kings. (Midrash Abba Gurion 1)
Clearly, the Midrash is not addressing the literal text, and we are not meant to understand that wherever the word "ha-melekh" (the king) appears in the story alone, the reference is to God. Rather, the Midrash is hinting to us that the background of the story of the megilla is the Jews’ sin of abandoning God and assimilating into Persian culture — effectively replacing the King of the Universe with a mortal king, such that there is no difference for them between the "king" mentioned in the megilla and the King of Kings.
The Gemara alludes to the same idea in its assertion (Megilla 12a) that the decree of annihilation comes about "because they partook of the banquet of the wicked one [Achashverosh]." Obviously, the Gemara does not mean to say that the entirety of their sin is attendance at Achashverosh’s banquet; rather, this highlights that the Jews have no problem with participating in this event.
I shall not elaborate here on the historical background to the banquet; suffice it to say that we may reasonably posit that Achashverosh (Xerxes) organizes this massive party, inviting "the army of Persia and Media" (1:3), in order to plan his war against Greece, with the stated goal of expanding the Persian Empire to cover the entire world. How can the Jews participate in a banquet hosted by the king to celebrate his anticipated conquests, where Achashverosh himself declares his intention to “render Persian territory coterminous with Zeusheaven” (as recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus, 7.8/2)? Moreover, with Jerusalem standing in ruins, despised and desolate, how can the Jews willingly display identification with the Persian Empire, which is poised to rule over the entire world? It is as though the Jews of that time have abandoned the Sovereignty of God, replacing it with Achashverosh as king.
To illuminate and emphasize this sin, the megilla chooses to describe the events from the perspective of the "women's house" and the relationship between Achashverosh and Vashti, his wife. The first chapter of the megilla describing the "riches of [the king's] glorious kingdom" and the "honor of the excellent majesty" (1:4) of the king who seeks to rule over the entire world, concludes with a convocation of ministers, who are all summoned at urgent notice only to discover that the man who imagines himself as ruler of the world lacks the power to dominate even his wife's house. Each minister is struck with uncertainty as to the extent of his own authority and the power relations between himself and his wife.
The next chapter, offering a detailed and colorful picture of the women's house, listing the names of those responsible for the women and even focusing on the ointments and cosmetics used by the women, likewise exposes the sordidness of this mortal kingdom and its moral weakness.
Even when Achashverosh sits astride his horse at the head of his infinite legions, there is no mistaking the essence of his sovereignty, and the contrast between him and God cannot be clearer.
The beginning of the megilla records two banquets held by Achashverosh: the first, "for all his princes and servants", lasts a hundred and eighty days (1:3-4); the second, "for all the people who were found in Shushan, the capital," lasts seven days (ibid. 5 ff.). Correspondingly, in Chapter 9, Mordekhai and Esther institute that Purim be marked with two celebrations — the first being meant for all the provinces, while the second is meant for the people of Shushan.
The original pair of banquets are meant to give honor to Achashverosh and to display the "riches of his glorious kingdom," while the second pair is instituted for the glory of God, with the Jews celebrating His Sovereignty over them.
The teshuva (repentance and repair) for the willing participation in the banquet of the wicked Achashverosh is the establishment of a holiday in honor of God and the enjoyment of this celebration, at its appointed time, each year.
(A greatly expanded version of this article appears in Be’er Miriam: Purim, edited by Rav Medan [Tel Aviv, 2015].)